27 July 2014
When we left Curio Bay this evening, we paused at the top of the stairway that descends to the beach and took one last, lingering look at the place. A petrified seaside forest, a rocky arc of chilly shoreline that plays host to a resident colony of penguins who casually waddle past the handful of visitors (like us) who come to watch them. It's one of the most remarkable spots we've ever visited.
We were treated to mild, windless conditions tonight - a far cry from our first visit, when we were nearly hypothermic by the time we left. Tonight we arrived about 30 minutes before sunset and walked confidently down the rocky shoreline to the narrow inlet where - after two previous visits we were confident - the penguins would come ashore.
And sure enough, a few minutes after we settled ourselves among the rocks, the first penguins arrived. They clambered awkwardly from the waves and assumed their typical preening poses. Over the next half hour or so, another six birds emerged from the water and slowly made their way to nests in the nearby bush. We spent most of our time watching a nearby breeding pair preen and groom each other. Standing close together, their grooming ritual seems affectionate and tender - it's almost impossible not to anthropomorphize these charming creatures.
Our experience of nature at Curio Bay is that it's unspoiled, intimate, and desperately fragile. We feel privileged to witness the daily routine of a remaining handful of endangered penguins, and we're torn between affection for these ridiculously cute creatures and melancholy at the knowledge that we're seeing something that may not exist in another generation.
Is it right to want to experience something before it's too late, before it disappears or is degraded by its own popularity? We've certainly experienced this ambivalence before: Machu Picchu is magnificent but feels a bit like a theme park. Curio Bay is thrilling because it's so simple and real - but the petrified stumps are smaller than they once were, because too many people think it's okay to break off a chunk as a souvenir. And the penguins' nests are too frequently disturbed by thoughtless visitors - as we experienced just yesterday.
On two separate visits we've had the opportunity to spend three evenings with the penguins of Curio Bay, and they are among our most cherished travel experiences. It's a long trip from our home to the southern tip of New Zealand, and odds are pretty long against a third visit. So when we took our final look tonight, it was to frame that special place in our hearts and memories.
26 July 2014
On a cold, windy afternoon in the July winter of 2011, we sat on a rock on the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island and watched a Yellow Eyed Penguin emerge from the ocean.
The Yellow Eyed Penguin is one of the rarest penguins in the world, with fewer than two thousand breeding pairs left. The YEP makes its home along New Zealand's south and southeast coasts, where they build their nests in the forest, and then cross the beach to work a 9-5 shift in the ocean. They emerge from the water shortly before sunset, and return to their nests. If you're there when they arrive, they will not cross the beach. This is dangerous for them, and potentially devastating for their chicks. New Zealand makes every effort to protect its endangered species, so beaches where YEPs nest are physically off limits to humans.
Except for one.
The small YEP colony in Curio Bay doesn't mind human visitors. The seven-or-so mating pairs here bob through the surf, climb up on to the rocks, preen for a while, and then waddle across the beach to their nests. They don't approach people, but they don't go too far out of their way to avoid us either.
The house rules are simple:
- There should always be two meters between a human and a penguin. If the penguin gets closer, it's the human's responsibility to move out of the way.
- Never get anywhere near the nests.
We knew that Daniel would be respectful of these expectations, but we talked with him about them anyway. He took the rules to heart. When a group of four beer-toting visitors marched past the beach and into the nests, Daniel kind of freaked out. We were silently indignant, unsure how to proceed. We're not the Penguin Police, are we? And what on Earth were they doing? Who drives a hundred miles from civilization to get a buzz and mess with an endangered species' reproductive cycle?
Moments later, a local man noticed what was going on, and slapped on his Penguin Police badge. We're not exactly sure what he said, but he said it well. The visitors took their beer elsewhere and missed the show.
And what a show it was. A single penguin appeared first, in almost the precise location where we first spotted one in 2011. Six more emerged from the ocean before we left. Daniel took hundreds of pictures of penguins. We took hundreds of pictures of Daniel.
Despite the clear conditions and relatively warm air temperature, we entered our ninetieth minute on the beach without feeling in our fingers or toes. With the light fading anyway, we left the penguins behind and headed for the Niagara Falls Cafe, just as we did three years ago. And just like they did three years ago, the restaurant (which serves hundreds of visitors a day during the summer months) opened for dinner strictly for us. After a warm, comforting dinner like the one we'd enjoyed three years ago, we got in the car and took the same pitch-black country road back to the beach. As we rounded a curve, I remembered that three years ago, we nearly hit a lost sheep on that road. On this note, anyway, history did not repeat itself.
There was a Little Blue Penguin waiting in the headlights for us instead. We've waited three years to see one up close, so we're pretty thankful that we didn't kill him.
25 July 2014
We were driving through the rolling hills of southern Otago when a majestic black and white bird swooped across a bright green field. We mused for a while about the unique, predator-free island ecosystem here that allowed such magnificent, high contrast birds to evolve without the need for camouflage.
(Not our picture)
When we arrived at our inn, we eagerly searched google for clues to this unusual bird's identity. A few clicks later, we learned that the Australian Magpie was introduced here to control pests. And like most of the animals that settlers introduced to control pests in New Zealand, the magpie subsequently established itself as a larger pest than the one it was brought in to eat.
Oh well. It's pretty, at least.
Milford Sound, a remote fjord in the southwest corner of New Zealand's South Island, is the most popular tourist destination in the country. The iconic image of Mitre Peak rising above Milford's deep, dark water is a photo that every visitor snaps.
I snapped one in 2011.
What you don't always see in that iconic image, though, is the other boats. Milford Sound is like a ride at Disneyland: it's a thrill you share with a thousand other strangers all yearning for the same solitary moment.
When we visited Fiordland three years ago, our hosts told us not to miss Doubtful Sound. Doubtful is more remote than Milford, and gets far fewer visitors. To reach Doubtful Sound, you have to drive from Queenstown or Te Anau to Lake Manapouri, sail across the lake, and then board a bus that navigates the steep, winding gravel trail for 22km to reach the dock. Harder to reach, but what a payoff. When we sailed through Doubtful, here's what we saw: a kea, giant dolphins, fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, mountains, and waterfalls.
Here's what we didn't see: another boat.
When we planned this year's trip, we decided to skip Milford entirely. This felt like a risky decision because the weather in Fiordland is chaotic. You never know what sort of conditions you'll have from moment to moment, much less the night before. We worried that if the weather was terrible in Doubtful, Daniel wouldn't get a real sense of what the fjords here are like.
Weather tangent: we have been (knock on fern wood) so fortunate. It's the middle of winter here, but with the exception of light snow and poor visibility on our approach to Queenstown, we've had mild, clear conditions absolutely everywhere. Doubtful too!
We sailed across Lake Manapouri, got on a bus, and took an educational detour through a subterranean hydroelectric power generating station. When we reached Doubtful at noon, we were delighted to see... no one. There were no other buses, and no other boats. We shared a boat meant for 150 visitors with only 13 other people.
In the fjord, we saw dolphins and an albatross. Way off in the distance, we saw a group of little blue penguins (their actual name) bobbing along the water's surface. As we left the fjord and entered the Tasman sea, we saw a group of massive fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Here's Daniel, just as we hit the roaring forties.
Daniel gets motion sickness in the car, but he handled the large swells near the open ocean like a trooper. When things got really wild, he braced himself with one hand so he could take pictures with the other. For much of our time on the water, Daniel was a blur. He explored every inch of the boat's three decks, always racing from one spot to another for the best vantage point.
In the fjord's "Crooked Arm," our captain cut the engines and asked for silence. Even Daniel was still. The only noise was the soft trickle of a distant waterfall. It was the perfect placid moment that you'll never have on Milford Sound.
After three hours on the water, we boarded the bus and headed back to Lake Manapouri to meet the catamaran. In a Steven King-ish moment of déjà vu, the same wild kea (alpine parrot) that we saw at the end of our bus ride back to the lake in 2011, identifiable by his bum knee, was there to greet Daniel.
The bird is obdurate.